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March 1, 2011

Toro Y Moi defies genre conventions on sophomore album

What is chillwave, exactly? Did somebody really coin a new genre of music just by mashing together the words “chill” and “wave”? The last thing indie artists need is for their work to be further obscured by critics who think up ever newer and more exotic subgenres. Their efforts are wasted on me, personally. The more outrageous the terms I hear used to describe an artist, the less I care to listen to his or her music.

But if ever there were an example of the dangers of judging an artist by critics’ pretensions, it’s Toro Y Moi, a.k.a. Chaz Bundwick, chillwave’s latest phenomenon. Behind all the buzz that’s met its release, Toro’s second LP, Underneath the Pine, is simply great music—just under 40 minutes of spasm-inducing funk interspersed with enough moody reveries for you to catch your breath before the beat drops again and you get back to dancing.

“Chi Chi,” the instrumental intro, sets the perfect hazy atmosphere for the album. It would be the ideal soundtrack for walking through a darkened and nearly empty nightclub on Saturday evening, just before the crowd arrives and brings the joint to life.

And that’s fitting, because the album comes alive with its second track, “New Beat.” The name notwithstanding, these beats are as retro as they come, as if Bundwick lifted them straight from the groovy ’70s and brought them to 2011 so they could become immediately ingrained in our heads. The beats and synth are enough to make anyone move, but before listeners can hit their dancing stride, Bundwick elevates the experience with his hazy, evocative vocals—think lots of “ooohs” and “ahhhs”—that maintain Toro’s trademark psychedelic feel, even with killer dance beats. Truly, the song is good enough that it’s hard to resist replaying it over and over and never going on to the rest of the album.

But the next track, “Go With You,” picks up where “New Beat” leaves off. The ethereal feel and funked-out beats are still there (really, this must be what the background music in Disco Stu’s dreams is like), but Bundwick does more here to showcase his vocals.

On Causers of This, Toro’s debut album, Bundwick mostly hid his voice behind heavy sampling, which only served to remind us that singing is where his talents lie. With Underneath the Pine, though, he seems to have found a vocal style that suits his limited range and meshes just right with his melodies. And where his singing falls short, Bundwick makes up for it with probing lyrics that address themes we all know well: love, youthful apathy, directionless longing for more and better everything. This is, at its essence, dance music, but it’s nice when you can relate to a guy who’s laying the beats that make you bust a move.

The fourth track, “Divina,” is the first of several slower moments on the album, and while these pit stops between Toro’s signature funked-out convulsions are a departure from Bundwick’s earlier work, they’re the parts that should make listeners most excited about his growth as a musician. After all his side projects and mixes (check out the dance mix Bundwick did for FACT Magazine), no one is going to question his ability to sample, but in “Divina,” we see Bundwick bringing a more conventionally arranged song. Combining beats and heavy synth with traditional guitar and piano arrangements is what sets Toro Y Moi apart from other dreamy, bedroom-constructed chillwave music. With his down-tempo tracks like “Divina,” Bundwick shows how an album can be musically diverse and integrative without being jarring or mishmashed.

While the album excels at creating well-crafted music and an intriguing atmosphere, it’s not without perspective. Give Underneath the Pine enough listens to catch all the lyrics and you’ll hear that the songs ooze thought and emotion. Lyrics like “There was a finer life when you were with us here, when we knew there was a next time,” deliver such perceptiveness that they threaten to overwhelm the music, but they also add depth to the rather poppy sound. There’s enough thought and insight here to elevate Underneath the Pine from the category of pure funk or background music.

I don’t think the moniker “chillwave” does the album justice, but I don’t think any other terms would either. It’s an early entrant for album of the year, no question, and packed with singles like “New Beat” and “Still Sound” that won’t leave your “most played” list for years to come. It’s just great music, in every way and on every dimension that music should be great.

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